Neruda recording poems at the
U.S. Library of Congress in 1966.
|July 12, 1904
|September 23, 1973
|Poet, Translator, Political activist
Pablo Neruda (July 12, 1904 – September 23, 1973) was the pen name of the Chilean writer and communist politician Ricardo Eliecer Neftalí Reyes Basoalto.
Having his works translated into dozens of languages, Pablo Neruda is considered one of the greatest and most influential poets of the 20th century. Critic and biographer Alistar Reid has stated that Neruda is the most widely read poet since William Shakespeare.
Neruda was accomplished in a wide variety of styles, ranging from erotically charged love poems, surrealist poems, historical epics, and overtly political manifestos. Some of Neruda's most beloved poems are his "Odes to Common Things," collected in several volumes. Colombian novelist Gabriel García Márquez has called him "the greatest poet of the 20th century in any language". In 1971, Neruda was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature after several years of being overlooked for his political activism.
Neruda gave readings to the two largest audiences of any poet in history. On July 15, 1945 at Pacaembú Stadium in São Paulo, Brazil, he read to 100,000 people at a reading in honor of Communist revolutionary Luis Carlos Prestes. Upon returning to Chile after his Nobel Prize acceptance speech, Allende invited Neruda to read at the Chilean national soccer stadium before 70,000 people.
During his lifetime, Neruda occupied many diplomatic posts and served a stint as senator for the Chilean Communist Party. When Conservative Chilean President Videla outlawed communism in Chile, a warrant was issued for Neruda's arrest. Friends hid him for months in a basement of a home in the Chilean port of Valparaíso. Neruda then escaped into exile through a mountain pass into Argentina. Years later, Neruda was a close collaborator to Socialist President Salvador Allende.
Hospitalized with cancer at the time of the Chilean coup d'état led by Augusto Pinochet, Neruda died of heart failure twelve days later. Already a legend in life, Neruda's death became charged with an intense symbolism that reverberated around the world. Pinochet had denied permission to transform Neruda's funeral into a public event, but thousands of grieving Chileans disobeyed the curfew, flooding the streets in tribute. Neruda's funeral became the first public protest against the Chilean military dictatorship.
Neruda's pen name was derived from Czech writer and poet Jan Neruda; it later became his legal name.
Neruda was born in Parral, a city in Linares Province in the Maule Region, some 350 km south of Santiago. His father, José del Carmen Reyes Morales, was a railway employee; his mother, Rosa Neftalí Basoalto Opazo, was a schoolteacher who died two months after he was born. Neruda and his father soon moved to Temuco, where his father married Trinidad Candia Marverde, a woman with whom he had had a child nine years earlier, a boy named Rodolfo. Neruda also grew up with his half-sister Laura, one of his father's children by another woman.
The young Neruda was called "Neftalí", his late mother's middle name. His interest in writing and literature was opposed by his father, but he received encouragement from others, including future Nobel Prize winner Gabriela Mistral, who headed the local girls' school. His first published work was an essay he wrote for the local daily newspaper, La Mañana, at the age of thirteen: Entusiasmo y perseverancia ("Enthusiasm and Perseverance"). By 1920, when he adopted the pseudonym of Pablo Neruda, he was a published author of poetry, prose, and journalism.
In the following year (1921), he moved to Santiago to study French at the Universidad de Chile with the intention of becoming a teacher, but soon Neruda was devoting himself full time to poetry. In 1923 his first volume of verse, Crepusculario ("Book of Twilights"), was published, followed the next year by Veinte poemas de amor y una canción desesperada ("Twenty Poems of Love and a Song of Despair"), a collection of love poems that was controversial for its eroticism. Both works were critically acclaimed and were translated into many languages. Over the decades, Veinte poemas would sell millions of copies and become Neruda's best-known work.
Neruda's reputation was growing both inside and outside of Chile, but he was plagued by poverty. In 1927, out of desperation, he took an honorary consulship in Rangoon, then a part of colonial Burma and a place which he had never heard of before. Later, he worked stints in Colombo (Ceylon), Batavia (Java), and Singapore. In Java he met and married his first wife, a tall Dutch bank employee named Maryka Antonieta Hagenaar Vogelzang. While on diplomatic service, Neruda read large amounts of poetry and experimented with many different poetic forms. He wrote the first two volumes of Residencia en la tierra, which included many surrealistic poems, later to become famous.
After returning to Chile, Neruda was given diplomatic posts in Buenos Aires and then Barcelona, Spain. He later replaced Gabriela Mistral as consul in Madrid, where he became the center of a lively literary circle, befriending such writers as Rafael Alberti, Federico García Lorca, and the Peruvian poet César Vallejo. A daughter, Malva Marina Trinidad, was born in Madrid; she was to be plagued with health problems for the whole of her short life. During this period, Neruda became slowly estranged from his wife and took up with Delia del Carril, an Argentine woman who was twenty years his senior and who would eventually become his second wife.
As Spain became engulfed in civil war, Neruda became profoundly politicized for the first time. His experiences of the Spanish Civil War and its aftermath moved him away from individualistic, inwardly focused work towards social commitment and greater solidarity. Neruda became an ardent communist, and remained so for the rest of his life. The radical leftist politics of his literary friends, as well as that of del Carril, were contributing factors, but the most important catalyst was the execution of García Lorca by forces loyal to Francisco Franco. By means of his speeches and writings, Neruda threw his support behind the Republican side, publishing a collection of poetry called España en el corazón ("Spain in My Heart"). Neruda’s wife and child moved to Monte Carlo; he was never to see either of them again. He took up full time with del Carril in France.
Following the election in 1938 of President Pedro Aguirre Cerda, whom Neruda supported, he was appointed special consul for Spanish emigration in Paris. There Neruda was given responsibility for what he called "the noblest mission I have ever undertaken": shipping 2,000 Spanish refugees, who had been housed by the French in squalid camps, to Chile on an old boat called the Winnipeg. Neruda is sometimes charged with strongly favoring Communists for emigration while excluding others who had fought on the side of the Republic; others deny these accusations, pointing out that Neruda chose only a few hundred of the refugees personally; the rest were selected by the Service for the Evacuation of Spanish Refugees, set up by Juan Negrín, president of the Spanish Republican government-in-exile.
Neruda's next diplomatic post was as Consul General in Mexico City, where he spent the years 1940 to 1943. While in Mexico, he divorced Hagenaar, married del Carril, and learned that his daughter had died, aged eight, in the Nazi-occupied Netherlands from her many health problems. He also became a friend of the Stalinist assassin Vittorio Vidali .
After the failed 1940 assassination attempt against Leon Trotsky, Neruda arranged a Chilean visa for the Mexican painter David Alfaro Siqueiros, accused of having been one of the conspirators. Neruda later said he did it at the request of Mexican President Manuel Ávila Camacho. This enabled Siqueiros, then jailed, to leave Mexico for Chile, where he stayed at Neruda's private residence. In exchange for Neruda's assistance, Siqueiros spent over a year painting a mural in a school in Chillán. Neruda's relationship with Siqueiros attracted criticism and Neruda dismissed the allegations that his intent had been to help an assassin as "sensationalist politico-literary harassment".
In 1943, following his return to Chile, Neruda made a tour of Peru, where he visited Machu Picchu. The austere beauty of the Inca citadel later inspired Alturas de Macchu Picchu, a book-length poem in twelve parts which he completed in 1945 and which marked a growing awareness and interest in the ancient civilizations of the Americas: themes he was to explore further in Canto General. In this work, Neruda celebrated the achievement of Machu Picchu, but also condemned the slavery which had made it possible. In the Canto XII, he called upon the dead of many centuries to be born again and to speak through him. Martin Espada, poet and professor of creative writing at the University of Massachusetts, has hailed the work as a masterpiece, declaring that "there is no greater political poem".
Bolstered by his experiences in the Spanish Civil War, Neruda, like many left-leaning intellectuals of his generation, came to admire the Soviet Union of Joseph Stalin, partly for the role it played in defeating Nazi Germany (poems Canto a Stalingrado (1942) and Nuevo canto de amor a Stalingrado (1943)). In 1953 Neruda was awarded the Stalin Peace Prize. On Stalin's death that same year, Neruda wrote an ode to him, as he also (during World War II) wrote praise of Fulgencio Batista (Saludo a Batista, i.e Salute to Batista) and later of Fidel Castro .
His fervent Stalinism eventually drove a wedge between Neruda and longtime friend Octavio Paz who commented that "Neruda became more and more Stalinist, while I became less and less enchanted with Stalin". Their differences came to a head after the 1939 Nazi-Soviet Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact when they almost came to blows in an argument over Stalin. Although Paz still considered Neruda "the greatest poet of his generation", in an essay on Solzhenitsyn he wrote that when he "thinks of … Neruda and other famous Stalinist writers I feel the gooseflesh that I get from reading certain passages of Dante’s Inferno. No doubt they began in good faith, but insensibly, commitment by commitment, they saw themselves becoming entangled in a mesh of lies, falsehoods, deceits and perjuries, until they lost their souls."
In the ode written on the occasion of Stalin's death, Neruda wrote: “To be men! That is the Stalinist law! . . ./We must learn from Stalin/ his sincere intensity/ his concrete clarity. . . . [...] And Stalin, the giant,/ Carried her at the heights of his forehead. . . ./A wave beats against the stones of the shore./But Malenkov will continue his work.”(full English translation )
Neruda also called Lenin the "great genius of this century". Another speech (June 5, 1946) is a tribute to the late Soviet leader Mikhail Kalinin, who for Neruda was "man of noble life", "the great constructor of the future", "a comrade of arms of Lenin and Stalin". 
Neruda later came to rue his support of the Russian leader; after Nikita Khrushchev's famous Secret Speech 20th Party Congress in 1956, in which he denounced the "cult of personality" that surrounded Stalin and accused him of committing crimes during the Great Purges, Neruda wrote in his memoirs "I had contributed to my share to the personality cult," explaining that "in those days, Stalin seemed to us the conqueror who had crushed Hitler's armies". Of a subsequent visit to China in 1957, Neruda would later write: "What has estranged me from the Chinese revolutionary process has not been Mao Tse-tung but Mao Tse-tungism", which he dubbed Mao Tse-Stalinism: "the repetition of a cult of a Socialist deity". However, despite his disillusionment with Stalin, Neruda never lost his essential faith in communism and remained loyal to "the Party". Anxious not to give ammunition to his ideological enemies, he would later refuse publicly to condemn the Soviet repression of dissident writers like Boris Pasternak and Joseph Brodsky: an attitude with which even some of his staunchest admirers disagreed.
On March 4, 1945 Neruda was elected a Communist party senator for the northern provinces of Antofagasta and Tarapacá in the arid and inhospitable Atacama Desert. He officially joined the Communist Party of Chile four months later.
In 1946, Radical Party presidential candidate Gabriel González Videla asked Neruda to act as his campaign manager. González Videla was supported by a coalition of left-wing parties and Neruda fervently campaigned on his behalf. Once in office, however, González Videla turned against the Communist Party. The breaking point for Senator Neruda was the violent repression of a Communist-led miners' strike in Lota in October 1947, where striking workers were herded into island military prisons and a concentration camp in the town of Pisagua. Neruda's criticism of González Videla culminated in a dramatic speech in the Chilean senate on 6 January 1948 called Yo acuso ("I accuse"), in the course of which he read out the names of the miners and their families who were imprisoned at the concentration camp.
A few weeks later, Neruda went into hiding and he and his wife were smuggled from house to house, hidden by supporters and admirers for the next thirteen months. While in hiding, Senator Neruda was removed from office and in September 1948 the Communist Party was banned altogether under the Ley de Defensa Permanente de la Democracia (Law for the Permanent Defense of Democracy), called by critics the Ley Maldita ("Accursed Law"), which eliminated over 26,000 people from the electoral registers, thus stripping them of their right to vote. Neruda's life underground ended in March 1949 when he fled over the Andes Mountains to Argentina on horseback, nearly drowning while crossing the Curringue River. He would dramatically recount his escape from Chile in his Nobel Prize lecture.
Once out of Chile, he spent the next three years in exile. In Buenos Aires a friend of Neruda, the future Nobel winner and novelist Miguel Ángel Asturias, was cultural attaché to the Guatemalan embassy. There was some slight resemblance between the two men, so Neruda went to Europe using Asturias's passport. Pablo Picasso arranged his entrance into Paris and Neruda made a surprise appearance there to a stunned World Congress of Peace Forces, the Chilean government meanwhile denying that the poet could have escaped the country.
Neruda spent those three years travelling extensively throughout Europe as well as taking trips to India, China, and the Soviet Union. His trip to Mexico in late 1949 was lengthened due to a serious bout of phlebitis. A Chilean singer named Matilde Urrutia was hired to care for him and they began an affair that would, years later, culminate in marriage. During his exile, Urrutia would travel from country to country shadowing him and they would arrange meetings whenever they could.
While in Mexico Neruda also published his lengthy epic poem Canto General, a Whitmanesque catalog of the history, geography, and flora and fauna of South America, accompanied by Neruda's observations and experiences. Many of them dealt with his time underground in Chile, which is when he composed much of the poem. In fact, he had carried the manuscript with him on his escape on horseback. A month later, a different edition of five thousand copies was boldly published in Chile by the outlawed Communist Party based on a manuscript Neruda had left behind.
His 1952 stay in a villa owned by Italian historian Edwin Cerio on the island of Capri was fictionalized in the popular film Il Postino ("The Postman", 1994).
By 1952, the González-Videla government was on its last legs, weakened by corruption scandals. The Chilean Socialist Party was in the process of nominating Salvador Allende as its candidate for the September 1952 presidential elections and was keen to have the presence of Neruda — by now Chile's most prominent left-wing literary figure — to support the campaign.
Neruda returned in August of that year and rejoined Delia del Carril, who had travelled ahead of him some months earlier, but the marriage was crumbling. Del Carril eventually learned of his torrid affair with Matilde Urrutia and left him in 1955, moving back to Europe. Now united with Urrutia, Neruda would spend the rest of his life in Chile, many foreign trips notwithstanding and a stint as Allende's ambassador to France from 1970 to 1973.
By this time, Neruda enjoyed worldwide fame as a poet, and his books were being translated into virtually all the major languages of the world. He was also vocal on political issues, vigorously denouncing the U.S. during the Cuban missile crisis (later in the decade he would likewise repeatedly condemn the U.S. for the Vietnam War). But being one of the most prestigious and outspoken leftwing intellectuals alive also attracted opposition from ideological opponents. The Congress for Cultural Freedom, an anti-communist organization covertly established and funded by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency, adopted Neruda as one of its primary targets and launched a campaign to undermine his reputation, reviving the old claim he had been an accomplice in the attack on Trotsky in Mexico City in 1940. The campaign became more intense when it became known that Neruda was a candidate for the 1964 Nobel prize, which was eventually awarded to Jean-Paul Sartre.
In 1966, Neruda was invited to attend an International PEN conference in New York City. Officially, he was barred from entering the U.S. because he was a communist, but the conference organizer, playwright Arthur Miller, eventually prevailed upon the Johnson Administration to grant Neruda a visa. Neruda gave readings to packed halls, and even recorded some poems for the Library of Congress. Miller later opined that Neruda's adherence to his communist ideals of the 1930s was a result of his protracted exclusion from "bourgeois society". Due to the presence of many East Bloc writers, Mexican writer Carlos Fuentes later wrote that the PEN conference marked a "beginning of the end" of the Cold War.
Upon Neruda's return to Chile, he stopped off in Peru, where he gave readings to enthusiastic crowds in Lima and Arequipa and was received by President Fernando Belaúnde Terry. However, the visit prompted an unpleasant backlash. The Peruvian government had come out against the government in Cuba of Fidel Castro, and in July 1966 retaliation against Neruda came in the form of a letter signed by more than one hundred Cuban intellectuals who charged Neruda with colluding with the enemy, and called him an example of the "tepid, pro-Yankee revisionism" then prevalent in Latin America. The affair was particularly painful for Neruda because of his previous outspoken support for the Cuban revolution, and he never visited the island again, even after an invitation in 1968.
After the death of Che Guevara in Bolivia in 1967, Neruda wrote several articles regretting the loss of a "great hero", but privately he condemned Guevara's adventurism.
In 1970, Neruda was nominated as a candidate for the Chilean presidency, but ended up giving his support to Salvador Allende, who later won the election and was inaugurated in 1970 as the first democratically elected socialist head of state. Shortly thereafter, Allende appointed Neruda the Chilean ambassador to France (lasting from 1970-1972; his final diplomatic posting). Neruda returned to Chile two and half years later due to failing health.
In 1971, having sought the prize for years, Neruda was finally awarded the Nobel Prize. This decision did not come easily, as some of the committee members had not forgotten Neruda's past praise of Stalinist dictatorship. But his Swedish translator, Artur Lundkvist, did his best to ensure the Chilean the prize.
As the disturbances of 1973 unfolded, Neruda, then deathly ill from prostate cancer, was devastated by the mounting attacks on the Allende government. The final military coup led by General Augusto Pinochet on 11 September saw Neruda's hopes for a socialist and democratic Chile literally go up in flames. Shortly thereafter, during a search of the house and grounds at Isla Negra by Chilean armed forces at which he was present, Neruda famously remarked:
Look around — there's only one thing of danger for you here — poetry.
Neruda died of heart failure on the evening of September 23, 1973, at Santiago's Santa María Clinic. Subsequent to his death, Neruda's homes in both Valparaiso and Santiago were looted and vandalized. His wife, as a way of drawing world attention to the ongoing conduct of Pinochet's junta, moved his body to lie in state amidst the rubble in the couple's Santiago house La Chascona, which had just been violently ransacked by the armed forces. His funeral took place with a massive police presence, and mourners took advantage of the occasion to protest the Pinochet regime.
Matilde Urrutia subsequently compiled and edited for publication the memoirs that Neruda had been working on just days prior to his death. These and other activities brought her into conflict with Pinochet's government, which continually sought to curtail Neruda's influence on the Chilean collective consciousness. Indeed, Neruda's poetry was outlawed in Chile by the junta until the restoration of democracy in 1990. Urrutia's own memoir, My Life with Pablo Neruda, was published posthumously in 1986.
Neruda owned three houses in Chile; today they are all open to the public as museums: La Chascona in Santiago, La Sebastiana in Valparaíso, and Casa de Isla Negra in Isla Negra, where he and Matilde Urrutia are buried.
|Sandino duerme en la selva hasta ese día,
|Sandino sleeps in the forest to this day,
|su fusil se ha llenado de lianas y de lluvia,
|his rifle has filled with vines and rain,
|su rostro no tiene párpados,
|his face has no eyelids,
|pero las heridas con que lo matasteis están vivas
|but the wounds with which you killed him are alive
|como las manos de Puerto Rico que esperan
|like the hands of Puerto Rico which await
|la luz de los cuchillos.
|the light of knives.
— lines 461-466, "Que despierta el leñador" ("May the Woodsman Awaken"), Canto General